Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: The Cocktail Party

Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer
Post Preliminary Confessions

masks

Comedy. Drama.

Title: The Cocktail Party (1949)
Playwright: T.S. Eliot
Time Period: Modernism
Plot: Several West End Londoners gather in the Chamberlaynes’ drawing-room following a cocktail party. Left to serve their guests alone, Edward Chamberlayne meets a mysterious stranger who offers his assistance in helping save their troubled marriage.
Dope Line(s):

[Act 1, Sc. 1, Ln. 333-335]

UNIDENTIFIED GUEST
It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.
Resign yourself to be the fool you are.
That’s the best advice
I can give you.

[Act 1, Sc. 3, Ln. 88-89]

EDWARD
Oh, my God, what shall we talk about?
We can’t sit here in silence.

[Act 1, Sc. 3, Ln. 322-325]

LAVINIA
Everything I tried only made matters worse,
And the moment you were offered something that you wanted
You wanted something else. I shall treat you very differently
In
[the] future.

london-night-1950

London (West End), 1950s

It is soooo refreshing to (finally) read a good story. I can’t even remember the last time I felt this giddy upon finishing a book. (Good stories do that to me; how ‘bout you?) I guess this here blog series is gonna be alright after all… And I’m thankful for that! Last month’s stage play put me in a really dark place. (Bad stories do that to me; how ‘bout you?) Talking became a chore. My jeans didn’t feel as crisp. I started back eating bread. Everything was not awesome. Life!—How fast things snowball… But like his Duderino’s ethos as to the way Life is: “Strikes and gutters.” Yes, why, yes indeed! Life is, at any given moment, as simple as that­—that of a forward roll of a thirteen-pound bowling ball down a waxed, wooden lane. Not necessarily a strike but the aim is to hit something as opposed to nothing at all. So, here I am; confidence renewed, faith restored, out of the gutter and lined up for a spare!—and all the more thankful to finally have some good chi flowing through me. This series’ll be done in no time!

st_anthony_of_padua

St. Anthony of Padua

It being close to the Holiday Season (November, Thanksgiving; December, Christmas [and Kwanzaa]), I wanted to do a side-by-side to cap things off. By that I mean, I wanted to review two stage plays: one of them an original, and the other an adaptation. Bad form on me though; I wrote last month that I’d be going Greek (I later edited this portion.) but in truth I had the “adapted” material slotted for November. It’s no surprise now but The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot is somewhat of a loose adaption of Alcestis by Euripides (Feel free to jump ahead if you like.) — and as a “Thank you!” to You this Holiday Season, I decided to let you in on what some of my favorite stage plays are. Playwrights actually. I absolutely love T.S. Eliot! I would guess that most of you are familiar with him through his poetry; this one in particular: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Old Possum’s would later be used as the source material for the long-running Broadway musical Cats (1981). I’m familiar with Eliot through a number of his essays and Murder in the Cathedral (1939), an earlier stage play of his which sits high on my list of all-time favorites. (Yes, it’s that good!) As mentioned way back in March and echoed again in June, I’m rather hush-hush about the material I read (for the most part). But ‘tis the season and offering up one of my personal favs might give you a better understanding of the kind of material I’m always on the lookout for…

TS Eliot

T.S. Eliot, himself

Well, what’s unique about Cocktail is how stripped-down the material is but at the same time how crammed it is with clever (and perhaps indulgent) homages to timeless works. Eliot borrows liberally from the Holy Bible, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Prometheus Unbound, The Waste Land (his own), Murder in the Cathedral (his own), Sweeney Agonistes (his own), The Family Reunion (his own), East Coker (his own), The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (his own), Descent into Hell (his buddy’s), The Extasie, A Woman Killed with Kindness, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Divine Comedy (Paradiso in particular), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis], Fathers and Sons, Res Publica [The Republic], Piers Plowman, Carmina Gadelica; also some wise sayings from Socrates and Buddha, and a few plot mechanics from William Congreve and the Comedy of Manners—and, of course, the above mentioned Alcestis which I’ll discuss more in-depth next month. (Eliot basically did the Tarantino before Tarantino did the Tarantino.)

1950s_solitaire

Some say Patience, I say Solitaire

All this mic-checking of other people’s material caused a lot of ire among Eliot’s literary peers (and a few of his friends) in the play’s heyday. (I seriously doubt the plebs of today will have read any of the works mentioned above; I’m aware of only about seven of them, and many of the works I’ve listed above have insanely high page counts.) And that was pretty much the only significant scratch against The Cocktail Party—that Eliot filched “sourced” so much of his dialogue from other people’s work that the play’s credibility was somewhat strained. Oh, and the characters—whose origins are rooted in farce; as Eliot was also wanting to satirize the first-world problems of London’s West End circa 1950—start off in something grounded in reality (and at times witty) only to become grand sermonizers and soap-boxers as the play moves forward, especially in the middle of Act Two. (As a lover of monologues, I was in hog heaven. The fact that they were heavy with Christian undertones and philosophical headiness didn’t all that much bother me.) Interestingly enough, Eliot later defended himself against the “sourcing” claim, stating that he merely did this to keep theater critics from picking up the scent of the play’s main source of inspiration, which again, is Alcestis. Should you read The Cocktail Party, that’s your call me to make. Me, myself—I have about a thousand other questions…

gin_tonic1

Gin + Tonic + Lime = Yes!

The play begins at the tail end of a cocktail party at the flat (home) of Edward & Lavinia Chamberlayne. Edward has been left stranded with several guest—and none of these stragglers have even thought of starting for the door. So the gin continues to flow, the hors d’oeuvres continue to be passed, and Edward’s patience continues to be tried—so much so that he fibs a bit on the whereabouts of his wife Lavinia who’s missing in action. (She’s away in the country tending to a fake sick aunt.) Just shy of newlyweds, their five-year marriage is already on the rocks; though this information is unknown to us early on. It takes minimal effort on an Uninvited Guest’s part to extract this bit of information from Edward a few moments later when they’re alone. Funny thing though: the Uninvited Guest’s nosiness is subtler than that of Julia’s, the Chamberlaynes’ spinster friend and renowned West End socialite who’s still lingering around. (She questions people whenever she damn well pleases.) Hell, Julia has no understanding of the word rude and neither does Alexander, another West Ender high up in the upper crust of London society. He too has yet to start home. It’s as if these three are all on the same team or something… Unable to cancel the party, poor Edward had to handle this small group—and others maybe—all on his own. The party finally over, Edward later finds himself in his drawing-room, defeated and dispirited, talking to a complete a stranger about his marital woes. Later in that same drawing-room, Edward’s young friend Peter—an aspiring script-writer!—tells Edward his problems which are also of the love variety. Young Peter made the timeless mistake of putting himself in the friend zone thinking that that move would put him on the quickest route to a woman’s under garments. Too bad the man Peter’s laying this heavy burden down on has already been “down that road.” But at least Edward’s being a good sport about it and hearing Peter out. Better to let the young buck down easy and keep the fisticuffs to a minimum—because you never know how young guys are going to react especially when they think that they’re “In love.” Oh, and that young woman would be Celia, who vanished with everyone else earlier. And like most side-chicks, Celia’s aching to be the star of the show. But “cosmically” there might be some thwarting of her master plan.

1950's_hors_doeuvres

More chips! More dip!

“The same thing but new” is an axiom sang out across the creative spectrum. It would be too easy for one to just roll their eyes at infidelity. I too have seen my fair share of it, but it’s the introspection that Eliot gives to both Celia and Edward that makes this play something worthwhile. (I mean, every time these two meet it’s fireworks.) I didn’t throw the book, but boy was I close—again! The play keeps the locations to a minimum (the Chamberlayne’s flat and a Consulting Room) and the storyline is fairly simple: a troubled married couple’s interactions with their acquaintances over the course of two years or so roughly, some of whom may or may not have god-like qualities about them; one in particular (the Uninvited Guest) agreeing to reunite said wife (Lavinia) and husband (Edward) — free of charge it seems. (Man, we’ll just have to wait until next month so that I can touch more on this.) However, The Cocktail Party does commit one major #TINWIPA no-no and that is having an awkward time jump in the narrative (two years!). Again, easily dismissed when the characters and the story are both complex.

gin_tonic3

Gin me!

Truth be told, old-ass Julia got underneath my skin—a lizzot! She pops up everywhere, prying for the sake of prying. This lady has got to be the noisiest character I’ve ever encountered in a story. But she did grow on me after a while as did Lavinia who definitely knows how to deflate a man’s ego… which makes for a great segue.

Like Camille, the “plot” of the story comes into place by the end of the first act. And much of what the characters say (and not do) after that point is where the story (tension) lies… To go into detail would ruin a lot of it for you (Act III is dope!); and you’ve seen a love triangle before. But what made me sit up in my seat was Eliot’s treatment of Edward. Edward is not the prototypical man of his Age (1950s), and him questioning his place in the universe and wanting to escape a loveless marriage would’ve have been quite striking to theater-goers. (Of course, men and women separated but not in great volume like today.) Men of Edward’s era rarely if ever thought of themselves as individuals (not publicly at least) and happily signed up for whatever society was dishing out. If it was go to work: men marched right into the factories; go to war: then hand me a damn rifle!; get married and start a family: on it!

chirstmas beetle

Metaphor, or Insult… Hm?

But watching Edward come into his own (self-actualization) made me painfully aware of something the men of my Age (A.D. 2017; some late Gen-Xers and many Millennials) have embraced fully for one; it’s also a luxury we don’t necessarily take for granted, but we really don’t have a clue on hard it must’ve been for men in Edward’s day to say fugg it! and go for self and self only. If Edward were living today he’d definitely be MGTOW. I would have liken him to having the same epiphany that Kevin Spacey (Oy, vey Kevin Spacey *deep sigh*) had early on as Lester Burnham in the movie American Beauty. (Films like The Matrix, Everything Must Go, Office Space, and Fight Club also come to mind.) Here’s a quick back and forth between Edward and the side-chick:

[CELIA: I don’t think I care for advice from you, Edward:
You are not entitled to take any interest
Now, in my future. I only hope you’re competent
To manage your own. But if you are not in love
And never have been in love with Lavinia,
What is it that you want?*]

(* = I provided the underline.)

Me answering for Edward: To have a little harem of maybe four or five hot twenty-five-year-olds on the side. Less responsibility, a less stressful job, and only to live off of what I absolutely need. A minimal existence. Also, a respectable gun and/or book collection, and perhaps a few other manly hobbies like billiards, cigars, or wild game hunting. A solid workout routine. Oh, and a better nest egg, and less friends, and less interaction with “dumb” people. And less you (Celia) unless you want in to my harem…

Sorry, I get carried away sometimes. Much of the above was me being cynical. But, no, Edward’s actual response is this:

[EDWARD: I am not sure.
The one thing of which I am relatively certain,
Is that only since this morning
I have met myself as a middle-aged man
Beginning to know what it is to feel old.]

Celia, in the middle of all this, belittles Edward by calling him a beetle. And with that yet another women stuffs a man back into the role of provider.

tray_glasses

A toast… To???

I’ll lay off the gender ish for now and close by saying that this play is very much relevant in today’s world—albeit slightly. Also, Eliot was doing the whole Art-Imitating-Life shtick here. IRL, Eliot’s wife died and during their whole time together he had been hella close to a young lady who thought that dude would remarry her when wifey was no longer in the picture. Well, she guessed wrong. So, it appears the Mr. Eliot went his own way. Interesting… But the fact remains that many (men) are waking up to the peculiarities of the institution of Marriage—especially now that the State and the Courts have gotten way too involved. And sizable chunk of men have sought out to better understand their personal relationship with the Universe, spiritually, religiously, astrally (it’s a word now) and secularly (and this is a word now too). Of course, there are major (societal) ramifications to all of this—but my generation isn’t at all concerned about the cause & effect portion. Strict marriage and even stricter religion don’t have the quite hold they once did, but they’re still lingering… Yet something tells me that neither of these will be the norm from now on… All righty, boys and girls and aliens. I’m looking down the barrel of three intense workout days to make room for the turkey and pumpkin pie I plan on engorging myself on. Next month we wrap this series up and we’ll talk 2018 in 2018. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

stage-chair

‘Til December…

 

Rating: 4/5

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One Response to “Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer: The Cocktail Party”

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